Although the potential application areas for 3-D printing continue to expand, some of the same challenges that existed years ago are still preventing companies from embracing the manufacturing method. In a Q&A with MedTech Intelligence, Annie Cashman, global segment manager and business development (medical) for Protolabs, provides an update on what she sees happening in the world of 3-D printing, including from trends and innovation to industry collaboration to what’s on the horizon.
MedTech Intelligence: What are the top trends that you’re seeing in 3-D printing in the medical device industry?
Annie Cashman: Implants, anatomical models and surgical guides continue to drive the market, however we are starting to see prosthetic applications and instrumentation gaining traction. Dental is also an emerging segment for us especially in the SL [stereolithography] technologies.
MTI: Have there been any innovations in the area of materials?
Cashman: Nothing that I think is game changing that we haven’t already seen. However, we developed a custom-formulated MicroFine Gree material in partnership with DSM. This material was a need and ask from the medical device designers requiring micro-resolution features down to 0.0025 in. It’s a premium offering we are able to provide engineers with when they have to design small and complex geometries.
MTI: What challenges are companies facing in using additive manufacturing? What benefits are companies seeing in this arena?
Cashman: The biggest challenge I see is many systems are still “closed,” which means you have to purchase the materials straight from the hardware manufacturer and they often times do not have compatibility with a comparable plastic resin that you would use for injection molding applications. This is problematic in the ideal state in product development, as you would test your prototype parts with the same material as we move into injection molding. So essentially, the challenge is that there is no simple way to transfer DFM (Design for Manufacturability). However, this landscape is continuing to shift as many of the plastic 3-D printing patents expire, opening the door to additional competition, driving another way of innovation with a push for “open” systems.
We are still not seeing a justification in the cost model to print parts vs. molding or machining. The appropriate use case is still for parts that have geometries that are difficult or not achievable by traditional injection molding or machining methods. There is also an unmet need to get engineers to design for additive as a tried and true manufacturing method. It’s all about education on how the materials behave and how the process works so they understand the rules for additive DFM. Most engineers have exposure to desktop FDM printers, but when it comes to industrial 3-D printing, they are on a fact-finding mission. Protolabs has taken an initiative and is partnering with a few industry and known thought leaders to conduct DFAM (Design for Additive Manufacturing) courses, and we will continue to do more as the needs present themselves.
MTI: What is on the horizon related to 3-D printing of medical devices?
Cashman: The FDA continues to [collaborate with] industry, manufacturers, service bureaus and materials suppliers on best practices. I believe this collaboration will continue to drive the 3-D printing industry to establish best practices focused on enabling users to develop faster and have a higher degree of confidence in the technology for medical device applications. We have reached a point where the next generation of students has become so accustomed to using 3-D printers and the technology surrounding it that its widespread adoption in the product development cycle is inevitable.
There is no doubt that the 3-D printing platform is evolving at a rapid pace and will help drive innovation in medtech as we work to establish best practices and guidelines for the use of 3-D printing in all levels of medical devices. With technologies like DMLS and carbon we have witnessed a significant increase in printing speeds along with the resolution (how small it can print) that have opened the door for parts that were once not printable with legacy technology. The horizon for 3-D printing is bright with truly humbling innovation from our customers that remind us of the amazing activity happening within the medical space.